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Data Visualization: A Comparison of Power BI and Tableau


Power BI and Tableau are the two front runners for Business Intelligence reporting and data visualization in 2018. They allow companies to make sense of Big Data, uncovering key business insights from a multitude of different sources.

Power BI is Microsoft’s Business Intelligence tool, debuting in 2013, it is integrated into the Microsoft Stack which is one of its major advantages over Tableau. Right from the start you are presented with many ways of connecting to your data. Connecting to individual data files, databases and online services has never been easier. The ability to use external API is another useful feature for reporting on live data or data that needs to be updated regularly. 

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One of Power BI’s strengths is that it is free and you can begin reporting with Power BI desktop straight away. The Power BI service which is the browser-based cloud service will require a monthly fee after the initial 60 days trial. There is also the phone app which is easy to download and login to and see your dashboards in minutes.

It will become apparent after the first ten minutes that Power BI is significantly easier to pick up and use than Tableau if you have some Excel knowledge. Power BI uses the Power Query engine much like the Excel add-in. Microsoft utilize this in Power BI and it helps to differentiate the three main parts of the software, the report area, the data area and the table relationships area.

An advantage of using Power Query is that it allows the user to shape and transform their data into a different order of rows and columns depending on the questions you are looking to answer. Together with the data modelling capabilities of the Power Pivot engine, also from Microsoft Excel, gives the ability to create data models and relationships to data tables. 

While Power BI can get very complex, it can also allow simple drag and drop functionality to end users who just need to know month on month totals or total spend last week. In fact, business owners can use the Q&A function or Natural Query Language, a built-in language to Power BI that asks questions in plain English rather than code to get the answers they need. This all equates to time saved which can be better spent elsewhere.

Power BI has excellent mapping functionality built in with Bing Maps, a quick and efficient way to plot your data geographically. This time saving feature can be further enhanced with custom maps and visuals. The Power BI marketplace lets you download many free to use graphs, charts and other custom visuals to help create unique reports that stand out. 

The Power BI community is certainly one of the tools strong points. The built-in “from marketplace” feature lets users keep up to date with the latest visuals while various Power BI guides are available online to help new users with forums for frequently asked questions. The maps 3,500 data point limit could be a potential issue depending on the size of the project and forces report creators to filter their datasets to a manageable total number of rows but there are custom map options available that do allow more datapoints.

Tableau Software, founded in 2003 provides a product which is highly regarded. It has had an extra 10 years to establish itself as the go to visualization tool for businesses looking to spend more. Tableau offers a vast number of data connectivity and while it may not have the advantages of the Microsoft stack the options are still extensive.

Tableau visualizations are equally impressive. End users require an install of Tableau Reader on their PC to view and interact with reports. Sharing reports is possible through Tableau Server or Tableau Online. To use Tableau Online a license will be required much like the Power BI Service with the latter offering a free trail and lower rates. However, Tableau does offer a high level of customization for advanced users allowing the creation of dashboards and stories to organize the data into a series of slides.

An important point to make is that Tableau will require some extra training to use. Where Power BI builds off an already established product in Microsoft Excel, Tableau is a new interface and set of tools, using the pill system to organize dimensions and measures. At first glance this can lead to some confusion however the use of calculated fields in Tableau, much like measures in Power BI, really add another level of customizability. 

To get Tableau fully operational in a business, including licensing fees, training staff and to implement safe data standards into existing infrastructure Tableau requires more resources but can offer unlimited reporting potential. Power BI requires less staff training and has built in tools to make interacting with reports and dashboards easier and less time consuming. The gap between the two products is narrowing rather than widening.

Ultimately the choice is down to your business needs. Both tools are very powerful and can meet your business requirements. Tableau is common in larger organizations that can integrate it into their setup long term due to the substantial cost required. The Tableau interface isn’t quite as intuitive which does make it more difficult to learn and begin creating visualizations. Those with data analysis experience will find the task of transforming data easier while others may struggle with the steeper learning curve. Power BI can be brought into a business for less cost and a lower learning curve offering excellent integration with online services and mobile devices. Both products are mobile friendly which is a very useful feature as the need to work remotely or across different locations increases. Power BI does tend to slow down when using larger datasets while Tableau has better performance with larger datasets overall. Power BI would be more suited to smaller companies with limited financial or human resources especially if they already invest in Microsoft products. With the gap between the two certainly narrowing, Power BI is making positive steps in the right direction.

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